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Pepsi the Health and Nutrition Expert? Not On Our Site, Say Scientist Bloggers

In a bold new, seemingly paradoxical corporate experiment, PepsiCo is trying to position itself as a bona fide authority on matters of health and nutrition. But this week the company learned the hard lesson that not everyone wants to hear what it has to say.

A plan for Pepsi to include its existing Food Frontiers blog on the popular science site ScienceBlogs collapsed in just two days after ScienceBlogs was inundated with howls of protest from its bloggers over what they felt was the corporate corruption of science journalism. Stunned by the outrage, ScienceBlog's editors first apologized for not making it clearer that Food Frontiers is something written primarily by people who work for Pepsi and that Pepsi was paying them for the use of the space. They promised to make it more transparent.

But that wasn't good enough. Today ScienceBlog issued a mea culpa and pulled the plug entirely. "We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way," wrote the editors.

On Food Frontiers, Pepsi had hoped to provide information on the "transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio" and offer insight on how the company is "developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages," according to the intro page, which has since been taken down. Food Frontiers will continue to live on Pepsi's corporate web site.

Pepsi is unique among food companies in the extent to which it's trying to insert itself into the national conversation about obesity. It has just formed a Nutrition Center of Excellence and has hired people like Dr. Mehmood Khan as its chief scientific officer and Dr. George Mensah as its vp of global nutrition. Khan was the director of the Mayo's Clinic's endocrinology and nutrition clinical trial unit and Mensah was the chief of the CDC's Cardiovascular Health Program for almost a decade.

And if you're a "health and nutrition psychologist" or a financial analyst who knows about nutrition strategy, Pepsi wants you. The company is currently hiring for these and other unusual roles.

But the blog brouhaha, along with recent criticism over CEO Indra Nooyi's two-page chest thumping in a Robert Wood Johnson obesity report, illustrates that the company is a long ways away from getting the respect it wants as a corporate citizen.

It's admirable that Pepsi wants to build what it calls a "nutrition-based portfolio," and it will be interesting to see what its R&D teams come up with. The company clearly understands that it needs more counterpoints to top selling junk foods like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Doritos, Cheetos and Lay's Potato Chips. But should a food company be a go-to source for health information? That's a question we'll certainly be hearing more about as Pepsi continues its nutrition push.

Image from Flckr user Thomas Hawk